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Working On "The Same Old Stuff"

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By Alyce Barry

I often hear frustration from clients and friends when they re-encounter an issue they've worked on before.

"What's wrong with me," I hear them asking, "that I keep working on the 'same old stuff' over and over? Why am I not over this one yet?"

I can certainly resonate. I have issues I know I've worked on at least half a dozen times, each time going a little deeper or approaching it from a slightly different angle. I'm well acquainted with that "Not this one again!" feeling.

At different times, I've replied in different ways, depending on what I knew about the person and the issue they referred to. Recently, I wondered if I could come up with a more comprehensive view of why people work on certain issues over and over.

To do that, I turned to the Shadow Work® Four-Directional Model, which I find very helpful for this purpose. In fact, one of the things I like best about the Model is the way it helps me organize my thoughts and encompass ideas that I might otherwise fail to consider.


I think of the four archetypes on which the Model is based — the Magician, Sovereign, Lover, and Warrior — as portals, or doorways.

I can step through each of the doorways toward one aspect or "face" of the highest self I can become. And life brings me things through each of the doorways, too.

For the purposes of this discussion, I'll use as an example an issue I'm working on right now for what seems like the umpteenth time: wanting to feel more comfortable with my anger.

I grew up in a household where anger felt too risky, so I put anger into shadow. Of course, when I did that, I put away a good chunk of my power as well, since anger is really just power looking for an outlet. It's my belief that anger is a healthy response to a situation where I want to set a boundary (a goal or a limit) in order to accomplish something. What I'd really like is to enjoy feeling angry, but I'm not there yet. I've come a long way, but it still feels risky.


My Magician is the part of me that learns. Thus, if I'm working on anger one more time, "Life" (or the Divine, or God, or the Universe, or whatever you want to call it) is sending some new learning to me through the Magician portal, like light from a new or brighter source.

I believe that, to a large degree, life is about learning, and we're here to learn as much as we can. Of course, I don't always want to learn what Life's trying to teach me. What helps me is remembering all the times when some new learning came in very handy.

I also believe that if life wants to teach me something, I might as well learn it now because it's only going to come around again later if I don't. As a friend of mine likes to say, "Life sends us pebbles, and if we ignore the pebbles, we get boulders." I've had some boulders in my life, and I'd just as soon deal with the pebbles, thank you very much.

And what does my Magician want?

As I look out through the Magician portal, my Magician wants me to work on anger one more time because it's not yet satisfied with how anger's working in my life. My Magician is the part of me that's ready to put its finger on whatever's not quite right. When I'm washing a window, it's my Magician who looks over my shoulder and points out the spot I missed. Although that's not always a pleasant experience, I can take some comfort from knowing that my Magician is wants to help me improve.


From a Sovereign point of view, I'm working on anger yet again because Life, or the Divine, is letting me know I still have some healing to do. There's still some hurt around anger, in other words, and the Divine is sending me compassion, like sunlight that pours through a doorway onto the floor and warms up the room. It comes through the Sovereign portal because my Sovereign is the part of me that connects me with the Divine.

Nesting Russian dollsIf I ask my Sovereign what it wants out of working on anger one more time, an image comes to me, of nesting Russian dolls, each one nesting inside another doll that's slightly larger.

Earlier in my life, when my Sovereign was mostly in shadow, I felt small as a person. I got support from mentors and teachers whose dolls looked bigger than mine.

As I bring more and more of my Sovereign energy out of shadow, my Sovereign becomes a larger doll. The larger it gets, the more it can support those whose dolls see themselves as smaller than me. In other words, I become a mentor and teacher to others.

What my Sovereign wants from working on anger one more time is to become a bigger doll: to become a role model in dealing with anger so that I can help others who struggle with the same issue.

I love this image of the nesting dolls. As I work through deeper and deeper issues, I get to know smaller and smaller dolls within me, so that I'm healing younger and younger parts of me. I also become capable of helping other people with deeper issues of their own, and healing younger parts of them.

The deeper the issue I'm working with, the more my Sovereign asks for, and receives, support from the biggest doll in the set, which is the Divine. It will always be there to support me, even on those sunless days when I see myself as the littlest doll in the world.


Coming through my Lover portal is a soft rain from a cloudy sky. It's a good day to curl up with a story book.

Once upon a time, when I was small, something painful happened: I found out that my anger wasn't welcome to someone I loved. So I put my anger away rather than risk damage to my relationship with that beloved someone.

My anger was a natural, healthy part of me, and when I put it away, I felt the grief of loss. And I lost a part of my connection with that person who couldn't welcome it, too.

Today, anger remains an issue because a part of me is on a dance floor, in a painful dance with that person. To that part of me, who wants desperately to hold onto the remaining connection with that person, a painful dance is better than no dance at all.

When I can see the dance as my way of loving, I become able to change it. I can give back the painful dance to my beloved partner and take a different way of staying connected. In doing so, I also reclaim what a loving person I am.

What my Lover wants, as it peers out through the Lover portal, is a different kind of dance. It wants to dance with my anger, to play with it, have fun with it, enjoy it, instead of feeling uncomfortable with it. My Lover wants me to connect with power through my body. It wants my anger to be part of my relationships, too, where it can help me create healthy boundaries.

My Lover hears a dance tune coming through the portal. It invites me to step through and start dancing.


Lastly, what comes through my Warrior portal is a bracing wind that reminds me that a struggle with anger is one aspect of my personality type.

I once thought of a personality type as a kind of pigeonhole, and I didn't like that at all.

These days, I think about personality type very differently. My type isn't a limit. It represents a set of strategies that I adopted at an early age for navigating my early environment. It's a map that shows me where I started, and by implication, what direction I might want to go.

In my early environment, anger was risky, so I put it away. That happened so early in my life that my struggle with anger became a foundation for many other things I became. It's natural that I should run into it from time to time as I work on the deepest, youngest parts of me.

There's little question what my Warrior wants as it bravely steps out through the portal: it wants a challenge!

Just as my Sovereign wants to become a bigger and bigger doll, so my Warrior wants to get stronger by running a longer, harder race over more difficult terrain. I'm working on anger one more time because my Warrior wants to run to a finish line that's a little farther away than the last finish line was.


When I chart my new insights by the four directions, I have a map for helping me understand why I work on "the same old stuff" over and over again. It looks like this.

Alyce Barry is a Certified Shadow Work® Group Facilitator and Coach, and a writer, in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago Read more about Alyce.

This article originally appeared in our free email newsletter in 2007. To subscribe, visit our subscription page.

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